Founded 10 years ago in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, Nyege Nyege Tapes is one of the most exciting and impressive record labels in operation today. Its catalogue (as well as that of its more experimental sublabel, Hakuna Kulala) highlights the diversity of sounds and styles found in the underground electronic music scenes across East Africa, ranging from Nihiloxica’s synth-infused traditional drumming to Duma’s blend of industrial noise and death metal. Following a ‘borderless’ musical philosophy, Nyege Nyege also offers non-African electronic artists opportunities to participate in residency programs in Uganda, allowing them to collaborate with and learn from African producers and musicians.
Saccades is the second studio album to result from Rian Treanor’s 2018 residency, following his 2020 solo effort File Under UK Metaplasm. Whereas that first album seamlessly combined fast-paced Tanzanian singeli rhythms with Treanor’s nausea-inducing (in a good way!) experimental sound design, Saccades—whose name is a term for rapid, jerky eye movements—presents more of a cultural clash.
Ocen James is an Acholi multi-instrumentalist who hails from Northern Uganda. His style is rooted in the “Acholitronix” scene, in which electronic artists experimented with traditional Acholi music in order to replace traditional wedding bands, which became unaffordable during the civil war. As such, James’s music is oriented around large social gatherings and dancing. On Saccades, he primarily plays the rigi rigi, a sort of single-stringed tube fiddle. Treanor, on the other hand, is the son of IDM/Glitch pioneer Mark Fell, and those more private, ‘cerebral’ influences are easily apparent in his work. Even when Treanor has engaged with dance music in the past, it has been with a more deconstructive attitude: his 2021 EP, Obstacle Scattering, presented “the idea of sound being an obstacle that you have to get your body around,” which sounds good as a description on Bandcamp but not so much as an option for a wedding playlist. Personally, I learned my lesson when I was coaxed into playing ‘Hypnic Jerks’, the opening track to File Under UK Metaplasm, at a family Christmas gathering: its high-pitched squelches made everyone more than a little uncomfortable.
Treanor’s input is clear for the bulk of the album, as he takes the lead with glitchy and atmospheric electronic compositions. But unlike his past work, which was characterised by the more artificial, plastic sheen common to British electronic music, the timbre here is more acoustic and clearly grounded in East African instrumentation. Treanor collaborated extensively with James to design digital instruments that would resemble and mimic various Ugandan instruments—most notably the a’dungu harp, which is especially prominent on ‘Memory Pressure’, where the synthetic strings are plucked over an ominous layer of droning whistles.
James is not totally absent from these tracks. Rather, he showcases his virtuosity by adapting the way he plays his instrument to match Treanor’s more experimental inclinations. On opening tracks ‘Bunga Bule’ and ‘As It Happens’, James manages to make his fiddle sound like a choking pig, or maybe what would happen if you convinced a frog to take up chain-smoking. I’m not sure how he manages it, but it’s certainly compelling in both cases. In the former, the almost gurgled noises make for a compelling juxtaposition with Treanor’s rapid but controlled drumming. In the latter, the same noises end up being more of a piece with the arrhythmic, constantly mutating percussion.
The problem comes at the album’s midpoint, with ‘Naassaccade’ and the aforementioned ‘Memory Pressure’. Rian Treanor’s IDM influences—in a recent interview with Wire, he referenced Mancunian duo Autechre—are a bit too obvious here, and while the East African stylings aren’t completely masked, it would be easy to pass off both songs as filler on any Autechre project released in the past twenty years. ‘Tiyo Ki’, the penultimate track, is similar, but James somewhat manages to salvage it with a reprise of his avant-garde rigi rigi playing from earlier in the album. Mediocre Autechre is still good music, but these three tracks are a little disappointing compared to what the rest of the album has to offer, and leave me wondering what might have resulted had Treanor deployed some of the more distinctive and off-kilter sounds heard in his earlier work.
The album’s best pieces are the ones where Treanor moves to the background and Ocen James takes centre stage. The sound of the rigi rigi might be a little harsh or raw to an unaccustomed ear, but James manages to produce an undeniable groove on ‘Agoya’ before practically shredding with his fiddle on the fittingly titled ‘Rigi Rigi’. Here, Rian Treanor offers relatively simple drum patterns and synth textures that enhance the Ugandan’s playing without overpowering it. The third track, ‘The Dead Centre’, isn’t quite as danceable, centring instead on interlocking layers of simple rigi rigi riffs. The track begins in a minimalist fashion, but gradually escalates as Treanor adds more layers and synth textures before wrapping things up with a satisfying chime. It’s perhaps the most successful fusion of the two artists’ sounds on the album.
The album closes with another effective synthesis. On ‘Casascade’, James slows his bowing to adopt a harsher, more solemn or even mournful tone, which Treanor complements with a warm bed of synths. It’s an alarmingly emotional turn for the album to end on, arriving in sharp contrast to the mix of catchy folk tunes and abstract experiments that it follows. As its title foreshadows, Saccades sometimes feels as if it’s jumping between ideas a little too chaotically, but it’s an impressive display of breadth and versatility that leaves me wanting more from the pair.
Photography by Ellis Parkinson and Balint Zsako